THERE ARE CERTAIN disclaimers to be made.
I do not go to museums. I have no particularly warm feelings for the Smithsonian Institution. I happen to like the city of Boston a lot. My sister lives there. So do the Red Sox. I like cities that have indigenous accents, and this is all by way of saying that the Gilbert Stuart portraits of George and Martha Washington ought to stay right where they are -- in Boston.
The portrait of George Washington is the original of the engraving on the dollar bill. The unfinished portrait seems to show Washington in the clouds, while in the version on the dollar bill, reduced in size, they're missing. Instead, on my dollar, there is the signature of W. M. Blumenthal next to the portrait.
The portrait of Martha is less famous, but then so is she. Nevertheless, taken together the two portraits are among the most famous likenesses in American art and the one of George Washington is surely almost an American icon -- like the eagle itself.
For this reason, it's not hard to argue that both portraits belong in Washington, the nation's capital, something of a tourist mecca, and, not coincidentally, the home of the National Portrait Gallery. Moreover, Washington has historic links to Washington himself. His home, Mt. Vernon, is right near by and it was Washington who, in a fit of madness, chose the site for the capital of the new republic, even taking a hand in the actual surveying. In a very real sense, Washington is more George Washington's town than is Boston.
The Smithsonian must have had something like that in mind when it made a $5 million offer for the pictures -- an offer that the Boston Athenaeum, which owns them, thought it could not refuse. The Athenaeum, which has for the last century loaned the two portraits to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, accepted that offer. It now seems likely, though, that the two cities will get to share the portraits.
Boston, of course, hit the roof over the original proposal to move the Stuarts to Washington and it is not too wild about the compromise, either. A committee led by Gen. James Gavin (ret.) was formed to raise $5 million to keep the portraits in Boston but it has failed by something like $4.5 million to reach its goal.
But it is Boston that originally cared enough to buy the paintings in 1833. That means that the paintings have been in Boston longer than the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials and, yes, even the Washington Monument have been in Washington.
The portraits are part of Boston -- part of the city's history and its heritage -- and people still care enough about the portraits and what they mean to Boston to work very hard to keep them there. There is a Save Our Stuarts Committee in Boston; there is no Bring the Stuarts to Washington Committee in Washington. The fact of the matter is that Washington as a city probably couldn't care less about the paintings.
But the real issue here is not who loves the paintings more, but the reason for the tug-of-war in the first place -- money. The Athenaeum needs it and the Smithsonian has it and for that reason the paintings are going to travel. This is all something of an accident -- one institution runs out of money and another, by the good fortune of an endowment, happens to have it. There is no great issue of policy here, no master plan at work, no brooding about the historical or even sentimental injury to be done. If Boston had been able to raise the money, the paintings would have remained in Boston -- simple.
In this sense, the portraits are some sort of latter-day Elgin Marbles. They are going to where the money and the power is, to our own version of the British Museum. This is the sort of thing that has been done time and agian throughout history. It is how the wonderful bronze horses got to Venice and how the museums of Europe got stuffed with the art of the Orient. Either by cash or by cannon, the art got moved. With the Stuarts, it's merely cash.
There are, of course, some new wrinkles here. The National Gallery, for one thing, claims that it is truly a national institution with a clear charter from Congress to collect the nation's portraits. But the fact of the matter is that Boston is being made to give up something it has always had and continues to want simply because someone ran out of cash -- not because it no longer deserves the paintings or Washington deserves them more.
It would have been better if the Smithsonian or some other branch of the government had established the principle that historical legacies are not for sale to the highest bidder. In this case, Boston should keep the Stuarts for a very basic reason.
It's where they belong.